Avoid leadership transition pitfalls: Engage and empower your staff

One of the ways the Board can drive a successful leadership transition is to ensure that staff members are fully engaged during the process so they continue to do their best work.

While there certainly are best practices on how to create succession plans and launch a search, strategies for staff members are often non-existent, and staff can be often inadvertently ignored or even misunderstood during the time of transition.

I’m sharing these insights to help you understand that:

  • If you’re a staff member, what you are experiencing is normal – “it’s not you!”
  • If you’re a board member, you can have a better understanding of what to expect, so you can help staff do their best work during a transition.

These insights and suggestions come directly from the work I do with organizations as a part of my Lead The Transition program. To learn more about that, you can visit www.LeadTheTransition.com.

For now, here’s a few key concepts to highlight to help create opportunity during this time of change.

The Risk – What’s Really at Stake When Staff Are Not Engaged and Empowered?

Declining revenue, failed collaborations and programs, and negative fallout in the community are all possibilities.

Employees are often on the front lines, and their stress, fear, or possible resignations can quickly impact organizational effectiveness, momentum and fiscal health.

Add the potential concern from donors and funders who may decide to “wait until the new Director is in place” and you have a recipe for organizational disaster.

Staff & Transition:  Understand the Common Dynamics that Often Exist

Undoubtedly, it is employees who often bear the brunt of leadership transitions. And, in many regards, have the most at stake during leadership change. As a result, in leadership transitions, the Board may encounter staff dynamics that include:

  • Initial Relief: Depending on the circumstances of the departing Director/CEO, there may be an initial sense of relief that the he or she is indeed gone. Employees may have been working in a tense or dysfunctional environment for months.
  • Immediate Concern: The transition can come as a surprise to employees. Feelings of loss, worry about job security and even feelings of betrayal could arise.
  • Common Bond: There will be private conversations and meetings amongst employees. These positive or negative discussions are frequently the only protected place to air concerns, but they could also lead to misunderstandings and distraction.

Board’s may face questions from employees (and even if they don’t say them outloud – they’re likely thinking it):

  • “What’s going to happen?” This question arises immediately as employees wonder about the short-term work that must be accomplished as well as what will occur in the long-term – both for their role as well as the organization they care about.  Fear of the unknown shows up in a variety of ways and this is often incorrectly assessed as a “personality” issue, rather than human reactions from employees not having the leadership they need to do their jobs.
  • “Who’s going to make decisions?” During transitions, departments and employees often begin operating in silos because their leader responsible for prioritizing, integrating and guiding the team is missing. This has a big impact on productivity.
  • “How can I help?” Dedicated employees want to help, but what does that mean within a structure that lacks leadership? Not knowing what is appropriate, or how colleagues may view their actions, may cause even the most productive employees to become frustrated and paralyzed.
  • “How should I respond when a Board member tells me what to do?” During a transition, the Board may check-in with staff more frequently than ever before, share ideas and make suggestions, all with good intentions. This can be helpful, but often creates a challenge for employees, as saying “no” to a Board member can be an uncomfortable option.
  • “How do I respond when someone asks me what’s going on?” Not knowing what to say is a terrible feeling for employees, even though they may have strong personal opinions. Every day, staff interact with important stakeholders. Attending an event or even answering a phone generates negative anticipation, and the wrong response could have major negative consequences

Steps Boards Can Take to Help Staff

When Board members know what employees are likely to experience from the list above, new strategies can be incorporated into the overall Transition Strategy, Plan & Timeline.  For example:

  • Communicate with employees immediately, frequently and consistently.  Listen.
  • Collaborate with employees to establish an external communications plan. 
  • Engage staff in key phases of the search process.
  • Provide staff with professional leadership during the transition to meet operational goals and ready the organization for its next leader.

Take Informed Action

Strong transition leadership is necessary for employees to remain productive and operate as a cohesive team.

When I guide mission-driven organizations through their transitions, we not only create transition strategies, but we do it in the context of vision and desired impact, and create a living Transition Plan that engages stakeholders, and is integrated into the annual operating priorities, budget and calendar. This kind of plan is multi-faceted, creates important transparency, and the most exciting part? It creates the opportunity for unprecedented success.

So, if your organization is facing a transition right now, and you’re ready for a strategic partner who is experienced in this area to guide you through it, I can help!

Visit www.LeadTheTransition.com to learn more about how you can put my 20+ years of experience navigating all kinds of leadership transitions to help you through yours.

If the information and video resonates, I invite you to schedule a confidential call with me to discuss where you are, where you want to go, and how I can support your organization to make that happen, and have the impact your organization is meant to achieve – especially during a time of leadership transition!

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